Back row standing, from left: Mary Suggs, Hortense Moody, Alquille Brown, Alexis Brown. Second row, seated: Alex Brown Sr., Rhoda Brown, Tosha Suggs, Alex Brown Jr., Janie Brown, Jasmine Chisolm. Front row: Kevin Brown, Jannah Brown

PHOTO BY ROB KAUFMAN

Learning about the Brown family can open many doors to the past that reveal how complex and textured life was generations ago. Their family tree is expansive, and like most of islanders, they are related to several other prominent Hilton Head Island families. The Browns’ story demonstrates, once again, that the heart and soul of Hilton Head is embodied in its strong first families.

Researching a family tree is both exhilarating and frustrating. It’s like being part of a detective story. You can actually bring people to life as you learn fascinating details about them. But some details will forever remain a mystery, and that can be very frustrating. Genealogy research can reveal the past in surprising ways. It explains things; it can solve family mysteries, bring to light rationales for crucial, life-changing family decisions made long ago that continue to impact who and what we are today.

For African-American families, looking at the past brings special challenges because of the existence of slavery. Among the most heart-breaking aspects of slavery is that it disrupted and dispersed families, and rebuilding the past also means rebuilding past family structures — one relative at a time. Too often for African-American families, looking at the past brings them face to face with what I call the “Slave Wall” that makes it difficult, but not impossible, to find information about black lives before 1870. Prior to 1870, there were fewer official records that documented their existence as individuals because slaves were usually listed anonymously in groups. For example, the record would say: 100 black adult males or 80 black children. 1870 was the first year that the U.S. Census counted and recorded newly emancipated blacks as U.S citizens. Before that time, in a legal sense, they existed only as property to be categorized.

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